Jailed and Bailed!
One of India’s most colorful and controversial political leaders, 66 years old Jayalalitha Jayaram, three times chief minister of Tamil Nadu and chief of the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham (AIADMK), has fallen on hard times. In a case that dragged on for 18 years, she was eventually convicted of amassing unaccounted for wealth worth more than $10 million and sentenced to four years in jail along with a fine of Rs.100 crore.
However, she stepped out of the Parappana Agrahara Central Prison in Bangalore after spending 21 days in the VVIP cell 23 as prisoner number 7402, following the grant of bail by the Supreme Court.
It all started on June 14, 1996, when Subramanian Swamy, then
president of the Janata Party, filed a complaint before a principal session’s judge, alleging that Jayalalitha had assets disproportionate to her known sources of income. The court directed the Directorate of Vigilance and AntiCorruption Wing to investigate the complaint.
The police registered an FIR on September 18, 1996 and a probe was conducted with search and seizure operations at a number of locations including Hyderabad. Ultimately a charge sheet was filed and witnesses examined.
It was alleged that the value of Jayalalitha's assets had increased to Rs.66.65 crore when she left office in 1996 after a five year stint. Before assuming office as chief minister on July 1, 1991, the value of her assets was Rs.2.01 crore. Moreover, she had claimed at the time that she was drawing a salary of Re.1 per month.
Accepting the complainant’s plea that a fair trial might not be possible in Tamil Nadu where the defendant was chief minister, the Supreme Court ordered that the case be transferred to Bangalore.
But her conviction did not affect her popularity. After her release she arrived in Chennai to a tempestuous welcome by hundreds of men and women who thronged the airport and her Poes Garden residence, hailing their ‘Amma’ and ‘Puratchi Thalaivi’ (revolutionary leader).
Thousands of her supporters who gathered around the Central Prison in Bangalore greeted her with shouts of ‘long live Amma’ when she came out. The notable people who were present outside the jail to welcome her included Tamil Nadu Chief Minister O Panneerselvam, a number of ministers, MPs, former MPs and party leaders.
Earlier, when she was sentenced and her bail petition rejected by the Karnataka High Court, crowds came out on the streets weeping and beating their chest. In a show of solidarity with her as a yesteryear actor, the Tamil film industry shut its operations, including screening of films, and held a day-long fast. According to London’s 17 people killed themselves or died of cardiac arrest after receiving the news of her jail sentence. “An 18-year-old set herself ablaze, a 21-year-old hung herself and two people aged 40 and 70 consumed poison while a police officer tried to immolate himself.”
The figures released by the party mention more than one hundred fatalities.
Members of the Toda tribal community organized a special prayer at the Muthanaad mund (Toda habitation) off the Ooty-Mysore Highway, where hundreds of Toda men and women from the ‘munds’ gathered in front of the traditional Moonbo temple and offered prayers to the presiding deity Thekish Amman to pray for Jayalalitha’s reinstatement.
For Jayalalitha, however, this is not the first time that she was investigated for owning assets disproportionate to her known sources of income. A police raid in 1997 recovered 750 pairs of footwear, 800kg of silver, 28kg gold, 10,500 sarees and 91 watches. With all that she could be called the Indian prototype of Imelda Marcos. The difference between her 750 and Imelda’s 3000 pairs of shoes is explained by their respective status. Jayalalitha was the chief minister of a state while Imelda was the first lady of a country.
Jayalalitha is known for her overly extravagant lifestyle. She allegedly spent Rs6 crore at her foster son’s wedding. The event made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for the most guests at a wedding and for the largest wedding banquet.
The former actress, who appeared in more than 100 Kannada, Tamil and Telugu films, was inducted into politics in late 1980s by M.G. Ramachandran, founder of the AIADMK, with whom she had costarred in many films. Ramachandran served as chief minister of Tamil Nadu until his death. After his death, Jayalalitha took on the mantle of the party chief.
Besides a five-year stint from 1984 to 1989 as member of the Rajya Sabha, she served as chief minister of Tamil Nadu thrice – 199-96, 2002-06 and 2011-14. Her detractors blame her for establishing a personality cult, because many public sector projects are named after her such as the canteens scheme.
The canteens are known as Amma Canteens. Amma in Tamil is ‘mother’ which is how Jayalalitha is addressed by her followers. There were other similar schemes like Amma Bottled Water, Amma Salt, Amma Pharmacies and the last being Amma Cement.
Her critics allege that she used the Tamil Nadu Marketing Corporation – which has a monopoly on the sale of alcohol in the state – to pay for many of her pet projects. The liquor policy of the state government is also attacked for impoverishing households and ruining people's health.
But nothing detracts the devotion of Jayalalitha's admirers. They claim that she has played a key role in the development of the state of Tamil Nadu to make it one of India's most economically influential states.
She has championed the cause of the rural and urban poor by introducing subsidized food canteens, providing free laptops to thousands of school students and launching other populist schemes like giving away food mixers and grinders to families. Her government was the first to introduce the all-women police stations. She introduced 30 percent quotas for women in all police jobs and established as many as 57 allwomen police stations in addition to other all-women establishments like libraries, stores, banks and cooperatives.
Jayalalitha is held in high esteem by her followers. Many of them profess their loyalty to her through bizarre acts such as walking on hot coals or drawing her portrait with their blood. There have also been incidents of her supporters attempting self-immolation whenever she faced political setbacks. Even her ministers have been reported to prostrate at her feet.
This case is the toughest challenge she has faced in her years-long political career. If she loses the appeal against her sentence, she will be debarred from contesting elections for the next 10 years. By that time she would be 77 and much water would have flowed down the Cauvery. It would be an uphill task for her to pick up the threads.
However, her followers are hopeful that their Amma would weather the storm as she did before and bounce back. Others wait in suspense, their eyes glued to the appellate court.